Abstract: The Anomaly of Private Property in the Soviet Union: Evidence from Soviet Patenting Abroad, 1921-1991

Lisa D. Cook


Private property was largely outlawed in the Soviet Union. Between 1924 and 1991, fewer than one hundred patents, which granted control rights to inventors, were awarded by the State Committee for Inventions and Discoveries. Yet, over the same period, thousands of patents were granted to Soviet citizens by patent offices of countries outside the U.S.S.R., including in Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States. Among Soviet citizens, patterns of inventive activity within and outside the Soviet Union differed substantially. This puzzle raises two important questions. Does the idea of patented ideas offer another challenge to the official prohibition of private property among citizens of the Soviet Union? What explains differences in the rate and composition of technological change in and beyond the borders of the U.S.S.R.? The preliminary evidence suggests that foreign patent offices were simultaneously substitutes for and complements to their Soviet counterpart. The implications of this research would be meaningful for better understanding the returns to significant long-term investment in scientific research in the U.S.S.R. More important, lessons from the laboratory of historical patenting behavior among residents of the Soviet Union could extend to developing countries and emerging markets considering patent reform today.